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Organization Deliberations - Learning Ability, Learning Agility and the future of learning ecosystem


Let’s face it – we treat learning more as a ‘want’ than a ‘need’ especially since we have to probably jettison what we have ‘learnt’ to warm up to fresh set of perspectives. We also know that learning on a regular basis is an integral part of one’s personal growth. When we extend the learning debate to an organization, there are various stakeholder viewpoints that come up.

These viewpoints become important in an organization’s maturity journey as leaders grapple with multi generation teams; tenured managers having to deal with disruptive lateral thinking peers and reportees; organizations grappling with nimble new competition who can outsmart them through their ability to learn and adapt much faster.

In this note, we examine Learning Ability vs. Learning Agility which puts a clear agenda on the table to not only tackle ROI from learning but also questions the learning ecosystem itself that is often force fitted by organizations without clearly understanding learning & developmental needs.

Learning Ability and the Individual

Learners learn in their own unique ways as I discovered doing a research paper a few years back on adult learning which dealt with helping people make career shifts laterally. So generalizing learning ability for an individual is inappropriate unless the learner has been calibrated. While organizations are today adopting ‘proctored’ and ‘non-proctored’ learning pathways using blended learning, there is always a gap in understanding and adapting the content, context and assessment to suit the learner profile, temperament and competency. Foot printing the learner during the learning journey can give good insights into some learning patterns and behaviours which is possible through most digital learning ecosystems. Gamification and Simulations are good examples of approaches that are disrupting traditional learning approaches.

The other visible learning approach which is often a quick fix is to seek affinity groups where the specific and requisite body of knowledge is available and get certified to ‘fit in’ – if the certification body is a university it is viewed as more credible. However, practically speaking mere book knowledge unless tested in a live situation often remains and goes stale unless the practitioner is able to experiment and also mix and match knowledge domain to re-purpose and reach a tangible goal.

Learning Agility and the Individual

Today, employees, managers and leaders often have complex situational roles – the word Learning Agility was used in a study done by Korn Ferry in 2011 based on the Lominger Competency model and defined as “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do” which is very apt for today’s disruptive business environments. Some of the roles identified are what one could consider outliers, gatekeepers or situational roles regardless of hierarchy – the roles identified were Problem Solvers, Trailblazers, Thought Leaders, Champions, Pillars, Diplomats and Energizers.

Interestingly most of these roles often involve dealing with situations wherein very little conventional knowledge or business rules apply and can permeate to any situation in an organization including front line roles. In such cases one has to ‘learn on the go’ – I personally remember an engagement wherein a 1000 page technical tender bid was thrust in my lap with a 15 member cross functional team ready to understand and create the bid document within 4 business days which was a tall task and accomplished only because the team had the collective competency and learning orientation to deal with the complexity and keep pace with the facilitator or mentor.

Dovetailing a competency model with the agility approach helps create a pool of such employees over a period of time which is useful for an organization that has a global footprint. Needless to say, this needs a strong understanding of current and desired learning culture of an organization both for talent spotting and mentoring.

The Organization Context of Learning ability vs. agility

A growing organization is always looking at scale and diversification and one will often hear the term ‘dumb it down’ in the context of knowledge dissemination if the execution has to achieve scale and efficiency else it stays as a great pilot. Additionally, techniques like Value Engineering and Management provide an interesting perspective that shows how a single feature can turnaround the fortunes of an equipment, software or product – today e-commerce companies use this very effectively to create powerful value propositions that they go after and unlock growth and margin potential.

A good case is point is to study organizations like Amazon or Flipkart and see how they pull off their high decibel selling windows in the midst of near chaotic work cultures. This is a true example of Learning Ability and Learning Agility at work as the core team which is tasked with this performs in perfect unison with a different set of business rules and agendas each year with the overall goal remaining the same towards a singular goal or result.

A word on the near future

We are now moving towards a world of AI-RPA-Machine learning-Bots etc. which are already part of our current reality. At the core of all of these technologies is a learning ability which is not vastly different from the meta models in our brains which influences our communication, interpretation and re-rendering of knowledge assets at great speeds. So perhaps, in the near future we not have to keep pace with our own learning ability but also deal with smarter generations of people and machines both! Now that is an interesting challenge for L&D managers!!

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